WASHINGTON -- For six months, Vice President Al Gore collected horror stories about the outrageous inefficiency of the federal government. They ranged from the pedantic specifications for government-purchased ashtrays to employees paid to monitor the weather at airports no longer in use.
That was the easy part. Yesterday, Mr. Gore and President Clinton began the hard part: doing something about it.
"This government is broke, and we intend to fix it," Mr. Clinton said on the South Lawn of the White House as he was presented the report on "reinventing government" by Mr. Gore.
As they talked, the two stood in front of a pair of forklifts loaded with federal regulations.
"Mr. President, if you want to know why government doesn't work, look behind you," the vice president said. "Those forklifts hold copies of budget rules, procurement rules and the personnel code. The personnel code alone weighs in at over 1,000 pounds."
From Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to Jimmy Carter in 1977 to Ronald Reagan in 1984, presidents have sought -- without much success -- to reign in the monster that Mr. Reagan often referred to as the "puzzle palaces on the Potomac."
Conceding that he is but the latest in a long-line of presidents driven to distraction by bureaucratic waste, Mr. Clinton vowed: "Make no mistake: This is one report that will not gather dust in a warehouse."
On the surface, there is little reason to believe that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore can succeed where so many others have failed.
Mr. Gore's National Performance Review, for instance, found little in the way of specific suggestions that haven't been made before: His 168-page report, titled "Creating a Government that Works Better & Costs Less," even points out that one key proposal -- putting the government on a two-year budgetary cycle -- was introduced as legislation 16 years ago by then-California Rep. Leon E. Panetta, now head of the Clinton budget office.
In addition, almost every proposed cut of outdated government programs identified in Mr. Gore's report had been part of several previous studies, including the Reagan-era Grace Commission report.
But Mr. Gore's approach was different from those of his predecessors. And Mr. Clinton's timing appears to be impeccable.
"Five years ago, this wouldn't have been possible," said David Osborne, co-author of "Reinventing Government," a bible to the Gore task force. "There are some moments in history when it's possible to do things like this."
Mr. Osborne as well as senior administration officials believe the 1992 election, the Ross Perot phenomenon, the skyrocketing federal debt and the demands the public is making on Congress all create an environment in which Mr. Gore's report will flourish.
In addition, there were two crucial distinctions between Mr. Gore's report and previous reports. First, it was done not by business types openly skeptical of government, but by Democrats in government who believe in government. Secondly, Gore gathered his horror stories from government workers themselves, like the one about the $600 hearing aid for a deaf government employee who could have bought it at a store for $300.
"The best ideas come from the men and women at the bottom rungs on the ladder," Mr. Gore said. "Federal employees want to help bring about a government that works better and costs less."
Mr. Gore didn't search for huge globs of government fat lying around waiting to be lopped off -- he doesn't think it's that easy. Instead, he immersed himself in un-sexy topics such as procurement regulations, personnel procedures, computer technologies being used by the government, and he concluded that the government could do the same work with fewer people and do it better by modernizing and streamlining itself.
In so doing, the administration has managed to avoid the rancor of public-employee unions. Administration officials said the first big step in implementing the recommendations would be a conference with the leaders of those unions next month.
And though some on Mr. Gore's staff were saying late last week that 70 percent of the reforms could be done without congressional action, officials conceded yesterday that most of the important changes probably could not occur without congressional acquiescence or approval.
The reaction was generally enthusiastic on Capitol Hill, even among Republicans. But there was much confusion and disagreement about how those elements of the reform plan that require congressional approval should be handled.
Some Republicans and deficit hawks in the Democratic ranks were urging speedy action on the proposals, which they believe should be packaged by the White House in one or two sweeping bills that members would find hard to oppose. Others, particularly those who have been closely involved in the oversight of government agencies, were urging a more cautious approach.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware, the top Republican on the Senate government affairs committee and an effusive supporter of the vice president's work, said the recommendations should be handled by a commission that might take two years to translate them into law.
The hazard with that go-slow approach is that if Congress is allowed to pick the report apart, there could soon be organized opposition to virtually every recommendation in it.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, for instance, said yesterday that she was "apprehensive" about merging the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. "It sounds like it has more to do with moving boxes on a chart than getting rid of crime on the streets," said the Maryland Democrat.
And Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican who embraced the Gore plan as the first response he's seen this year to the sort of reforms voters seemed to have asked for last year, took exception to the plan to allow taxpayers to put the bill of Uncle Sam on their credit cards.
Desire to slash spending
Those pushing for speedy action, however, sounded more driven by a desire simply to slash government spending than to painstakingly improve government efficiency.
Rep. Timothy J. Penny, a Minnesota Democrat, and Rep. Dave McCurdy, a Democrat from Oklahoma, are circulating a letter calling on the White House to incorporate the main proposals into a giant bill that would be voted on before Congress adjourns for Christmas.
And Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who has made a career of urging further budget-cutting, was eager to get Mr. Clinton to prove his commitment by locking the $108 billion in estimated savings into law this fall. "The president has a very real credibility problem on this issue [of streamlining government], and, quite frankly, so does the Congress," Mr. Gramm said.
Senior administration officials said yesterday that they had not decided on a legislative strategy yet, but the report had an answer for those who put all the premium on cuts and none on changing the culture of government itself:
"There are two ways to reduce expenditures," the report quotes a Canadian banker as saying last year. "There is the intelligent way . . . going through each department and questioning each program. Then there is the stupid way: announcing how much you will cut and getting each department to cut that amount. I favor the stupid way. "
* Phase out 252,000 federal jobs.
* Combine FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms.
* Simplify firing of non-performing federal workers.
* Create a two-year federal budget cycle.
* Cut red tape and make government "customer friendly."
* Allow payment of taxes by credit card.
If you would like to comment on President Clinton's overhaul of the federal bureaucracy, we'd like to hear from you. Call SUNDIAL, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service. We're interested in the views of federal employees as well as the general public. You will need a touch-tone phone.
Call (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). Federal VTC workers should punch in the four-digit code 4420. The general public should punch in the code 4430.
Responses may appear in future coverage of the president's plan.
The Clinton administration hopes to save $108 billion in taxpayer dollars over five years -- while making the government more responsive and efficient. Here's how:
* CUTTING RED TAPE: Vice President Al Gore talks about an Energy Department petroleum engineer who waited nine months before getting approval to buy a common hand-held calculator. When it arrived, it was the wrong kind. Disgusted, she simply purchased one herself. The report recommends streamlining government procurement, moving to a two-year budgeting cycle, decentralizing personnel and management decisions, and eliminating thousands of needless government regulations.
* PUTTING CUSTOMERS FIRST: Four years ago, the InternaRevenue Service gave wrong answers to one of every three Americans who called for assistance. Now IRS managers refer to taxpayers as "customers" in an effort to do better. Mr. Gore calls for this approach to be used government-wide. The Social Security Administration, for example, has agreed to post in each of its offices the pledge: "You will be treated with courtesy every time you contact us" and "You will reach us the first time you try on our 800 number." The IRS promises tax refunds in 40 days. The U.S. Postal Service will promise 3-day delivery of first-class letters.
* EMPOWERING EMPLOYEES: By giving front-line employees the authority to make decisions based on how best to serve the public -- and then by holding those employees accountable -- both the morale and productivity of the federal bureaucracy will improve, Mr. Gore's report insists.
* ELIMINATING UNNECESSARY PROGRAMS: Bruce Bair, an $11-an-hour FAA weather monitor, told the vice president that he felt he was "stealing" from the government by accepting his paycheck -- because the rural Kansas airport he was stationed at was barely in use anymore. The National Performance Review calls on Congress simply to eliminate programs that are no longer needed. And it gives some examples: the subsidies on wool, honey and mohair; highway "demonstration" projects that are beloved by Congress; 41 redundant programs in the Department of Education and others.